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Civic Universities and Social Enterprise

  • 25 February 2021
  • By Lucy Findlay & Diana Beech

This blog has been kindly contributed by Lucy Findlay MBE, Managing Director of Social Enterprise Company CIC and Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive of London Higher. You can find Lucy and Diana on Twitter @LucyFindlay and @dianajbeech.

In its 2019 manifesto, the Government pledged to strengthen universities’ and colleges’ civic role. Now, over a year on, it is right to ask how universities can prove their civic credentials and boost their ‘value-added’ to society in the process.

The advent of the Civic University Network and the ambition that universities around the country should create Civic University Agreements have clearly helped us to recognise the important role that universities play in civic engagement and the development of the communities in which they are based. Yet, little did we know that this role would be tested and challenged as much as it has been over the last year.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of the university as part of the local community has become more starkly and immediately obvious and has often come under scrutiny, not least during the ‘return to campus’ in the autumn, which raised tensions over students importing and spreading the virus.

In the medium and longer term, however, many universities remain an integral part of communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. As key ‘anchor institutions’ in their areas, they are often one of the major local employers and providers of other essential support infrastructure.

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted more than ever the need for the university to act as a good community member, working closely with its neighbours and playing its part in ensuring that local communities remain safe and supported. Due to their wider social mission and added social value, there is increasing recognition that universities have a responsibility to address both the prosperity of their local communities and improve access to marginalised groups and individuals.

Coming out of the crisis, we would argue that universities with a strong heritage of civic leadership and engagement will be much better placed to help communities rebuild a more sustainable economy and inclusive society moving forwards, and be stronger, more sustainable institutions themselves as a result.

The Civic University Commission highlighted the importance of ‘place’ in its report that predates the current crisis. In many ways, its message was a harbinger of the situation to come – stressing the need for higher education institutions which recognise and engage with their local communities in a partnership of equals. It is this civic engagement that is key to creating a more resilient economy and also enabling universities to evidence the impact of their work, demonstrating just how much they are making a difference to the people and communities around them.

But what should this civic engagement look like and how can the higher education sector gain greater policy traction for its ‘civic’ efforts in the future?

A good first step would be forging a closer connection with the Knowledge Exchange agenda. The new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) – the results of which are expected imminently – goes some way towards this, yet the exercise is limited by its data-driven approach which is, by its very nature, backward-looking and focused on existing outputs and results.

To capture Knowledge Exchange in the civic sense, we need to look beyond the ‘evidenceable’ and what can be shown via the usual metrics and look, instead, to future developments and aspirations. This is where the principles behind the Knowledge Exchange Concordat could really help us to define what constitutes civic contribution in the sector and look again at how this can be evidenced in practice to aid the development of an action plan.

Accreditations like the Social Enterprise Gold Mark can also help in this regard. The accreditation process encourages an organisation to reflect on its role as a catalyst, both as a socially-led enterprise and in terms of its own behaviours in supporting and creating social and environmental impact with others in the wider community. This brings together, often for the first time, a systematic assessment of the institution’s social enterprise credentials, including stakeholder engagement, ethics, business credentials and social impact. 

Higher education institutions, as the complex enterprises that they are, are eligible for accreditation too. The University of Westminster is a recent recipient of the Social Enterprise Gold Mark and has done some excellent work in this arena. For a start, the University has created an ambitious strategy, entitled ‘Being Westminster 2018-2023’, which clearly sets out the institution’s direction of ‘civic’ travel. This is backed up by a measurement of social outcomes beyond pure education, including progress towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

In particular, the University’s Creative Enterprise Centre represents a significant investment that has gone on to add social value in a variety of ways. It is an outlet through which students put the knowledge and skills they are developing into practice, by reaching out to local charities and social enterprises which in turn provides them with valuable work experience and longer-term career options.

This ethos has also led to a number of additional community benefits including a Polyclinic, a Legal Advice Clinic and support for the Baker Street Quarter, which is supporting under-privileged children in the locality. Over and above these activities, the University has demonstrated its own credentials as a good employer and a well-run, socially-inclusive enterprise.

Like most things, COVID-19 has only catalysed universities’ civic role. It is no longer about just seeing things within a clearly defined box marked ‘higher education’ or ‘teaching’ and ‘research’. Knowledge Exchange, leadership in the community and the creation of social value are embedded in everything that universities do and work together as part of a university’s wider mission to their cities and communities. Recognising this and coming together as a sector to claim social enterprise status will really help cement our civic credentials and lead the way in creating a better world, both now and long after this crisis.

As part of its new focus on what it means to be a civic university in London, on Monday 1St March, at 1.30pm, London Higher will be hosting a webinar with Social Enterprise Mark CIC to explain the accreditation process and advantages of achievement for higher education institutions across the capital. If you would like to attend the webinar, please get in contact with Sarah Hurst, Events and Executive Assistant at London Higher Sarah Hurst [email protected] .

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